Churchill as Thucydides
As a post-doc at Tübingen University (Germany) I am currently working on a paper about Sir Winston Churchill’s appreciation of Thucydides: did he possess a personal copy of the ancient historian’s History of the Peloponnesian War? I would be very grateful for any help. —O.S., Germany
I don’t know if Churchill had a copy of Thucydides’ History of the Pelopponnesian War at Chartwell (you might check with the house manager there). But if you are asking if Churchill read and appreciated the works of the great Greek historian, he certainly did. What’s more, the writings of Churchill were often compared to those of Thucydides.
Churchill first read Thucydides as a boy at Harrow or Sandhurst (where it was likely in the curriculum). In September 1913, on a cruise aboard the Admiralty yacht Enchantress, Churchill and his private secretary, Eddie Marsh visited Greece and Sicily. The Prime Minister, H.H. Asquith, a great scholar of the classics, was also on board, and Marsh recorded that Asquith “brushed up on his Thucydides for the occasion.” Churchill and Asquith then held forth on the Peloponnesian War.
T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia) compared Churchill’s memoir of World War I, The World Crisis,with the writings of the Greek: “I suppose [Churchill] realizes that he’s the only high person since Thucydides and Clarendon who has put his generation imaginatively in his debt.”
Similar comparisons of Churchill to Thucydides were made by the historian R. W. Thompson about Churchill’s World War II memoir, The Second World War; and, more recently, by Professor Paul Rahe of Hillsdale College about Churchill’s The River War (1899).
In 1905 the literary agent Frank Harris read the manuscript of Churchill’s biography of his father, Lord Randolph Churchill, writing to Winston Churchill: “…it will be as Thucydides said of his own history a ‘a possession for ever. ’”
In 1931 Oliver Locker-Lampson, reviewing The Eastern Front, Churchill’s final volume of The World Crisis, wrote:
No greater writer of the English language exists today. Mr. Churchill is our modern Macaulay; or rather today’s Thucydides…. Some day someone will do justice to this great Englishman. Meantime, let us read his resounding record and be renewed by the vigour of his patriotism and versatility.
Churchill himself wrote nothing specific about Thucydides, but he did quote something Lord Beaverbrook sent him in 1942, before Beaverbrook resigned (much to WSC’s regret) as Minister of Aircraft Production, where he had been invaluable. Churchill wrote:
He also sent me, undated, the following quotation from Thucydides, which he had perhaps tried in vain upon himself: “Open no more negotiations with Sparta. Show them plainly that you are not crushed by your present afflictions. They who face calamity without wincing, and who offer the most energetic resistance, these, be they States or individuals, are the truest heroes.”
—Churchill, The Second World War, 6 vols., Vol. IV The Hinge of Fate (London: Cassell, 1950), p. 74.
By “Sparta” I presume that Beaverbrook was referring to Churchill’s critics. The war had been going badly, but Churchill had won a vote of confidence by 464 votes to 1 on 27 January 1942.
3 thoughts on “Churchill as Thucydides”
Well, I don’t think that Josephus was a great writer, though I don’t know Greek, but he was certainly a politician to the depths of his soul (as was Churchill, and I don’t mean that to sound derogatory, as it may in the US), and a high-ranking government official. If I remember correctly, he was a sort of military governor, for one of the districts of the country, and seems to have reported directly to the nasi and other officials at the very top.
Though I doubt that he was either a great writer or a great thinker, he left two books which are earthshakingly important for anyone with an interest in that time and place. And considering the religious and historical ramifications of some things that happened there, that probably includes a lot of people. Thanks.
Josephus Flavius? Some mind!
By “high persons” Lawrence meant politicians. I think what he was saying is that very few politicians are great writers.
Arthur Klebanoff, CEO of RosettaBooks, which has just arranged to publish all Churchill’s books electronically, had this to say:
“There are only two American figures who have done something comparable: Theodore Roosevelt, who wrote fifty books; and Richard Nixon, who wrote ten. It’s wildly unusual to have a world leader who is also a writer, especially when he was such an important figure for sixty years. And Churchill was an extraordinary writer. You can open one of his books at a random chapter and read it aloud and you’ll find it’s beautifully written. He didn’t just win the Nobel Prize for Literature, he won it for a good reason.”
“T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia) compared Churchill’s memoir of World War I, The World Crisis,with the writings of the Greek: “I suppose [Churchill] realizes that he’s the only high person since Thucydides and Clarendon who has put his generation imaginatively in his debt.”
What a strange remark! If we’re talking about formal histories in which the high person was personally involved, at least Josephus Flavius immediately comes to mind. If we’re talking about memoirs, there must be zillions.